Cold Comfort Farm (John Schlesinger)

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

The most important thirty minutes of any feature film consist of the first fifteen and the last fifteen. It helps enormously, of course, if the minutes in between are enjoyable as well, but a movie that begins strongly and ends strongly will often be forgiven for a meandering second act. Cold Comfort Farm, based on an acclaimed satirical novel by Stella Gibbons (which I haven't yet read), takes about fifteen minutes to hit its stride, ambles along very pleasantly for an hour and a quarter, and then completely falls apart. (It actually falls apart a bit earlier than that, but admitting this would ruin my stupidly schematic and dogmatic thesis above.) This is the wrong equation. The film features many more charming scenes than disappointing ones, but the latter are inopportunely located precisely where they're most likely to dampen the viewer's enthusiasm for the picture; I'd barely determined that the film wasn't half as bad as I'd thought it was at first before I found myself sadly noting that it wasn't quite as good as I'd imagined it might turn out to be. (Read it again -- it almost makes sense the second time.) Its main asset, in addition to the sprightly comic tone of the middle section, is Kate Beckinsale's engaging, witty performance as Flora; I found Beckinsale rather drab and dull as Hero in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing (her film debut), so her excellent work here was a welcome surprise. (Like the film itself, however, she falters during the opening scenes.) The other actors are serviceable, but -- with the notable exception of Ian McKellen as the second coming of Jonathan Edwards (he gives a sermon that might be titled "Sinners in the Hands of Marsellus Wallace") -- rarely inspired. It's a decent little entertainment; my advice is as follows: arrive late, leave early.